Uncovering the Truth, Hidden Documents and Buried Children: Residential School Survivors and Their Families Deserve Better

Guest Author: Lawson Hennick, Hennick Law

The red marks on our great Canadian flag will certainly take on a new meaning this year.

There will never be enough compensation to make whole Residential School Survivors or their families, but their experiences cannot be in vain.

That requires getting at the truth which continues to rear its ugly presence, even more than 13 years after the Government of Canada formally apologized in 2008. Despite that apology, the wounds of the past continue to be reopened both for residential school survivors and their families.

The recent discovery of nearly 1000 residential school students’ bodies in B.C. and Saskatchewan graves, is yet another rude awakening about an injustice in our own backyard.

With 130 government funded church run Residential Schools across Canada, more than 150,000 Metis, First Nations and Inuit were forced to attend these schools often against their will, or the will of their parents and family members. There have been reports of more than 3200 students who have died, but the circumstances of many of these deaths and places of burial were unknown, at least until recently.

In 2009-2010, I had the privilege of working with Indian Residential School Survivors across Canada to assist them in obtaining compensation from the Federal Government through the Independent Assessment Process (IAP). This was a process that was provided for under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). It allowed for survivors of residential school abuse to apply for compensation for the sexual and physical abuse as well as for other wrongful acts which caused serious psychological consequences. This was designed to be a claimant-focused, non-adversarial out of court process to resolve survivor claims.

The IAP required proof of harm through medical evidence. Quantification was based on awarding “compensation points” in accordance with the facts of each case. For example, specific types of acts committed and the harm suffered would determine the level of compensation in accordance with a chart ranging from $5,000.00 to $275,000.00 in compensation. It was a case by case analysis.

The compensation points could also be “rounded up” by 5% to 15% for certain aggravating factors which include:

· Verbal abuse

· Racist acts

· Threats

· Intimidation or inability to complain; oppression

· Humiliation; degradation

· Sexual abuse accompanied by violence

· Age of the victim or abuse of a particularly vulnerable child

· Failure to provide care or emotional support following abuse requiring such care

· Witnessing another student being abused

· Use of religious doctrine, paraphernalia or authority during or to facilitate the abuse

· Being abused by an adult who had built a particular relationship of trust and caring with the victim (betrayal)

While I think the IAP Process was a well-intended program to compensate survivors, there were problems with it in practice.

Firstly, the deep traumatic effects of Residential School trauma go well beyond the survivors themselves. The harm caused by these experiences was very much intergenerational creating harm to children of survivors, resulting in stigma and reported suicides and drug overdoses to name a few. The IAP process was never designed to account for those other than survivors. For example, the parents or siblings of survivors. To my knowledge, a compensation fund was never implemented to deal with those concerns.

Second, and most troubling is that thousands of critical documents (over 12,000) in relation to the abuses that took place at St. Annes Residential School in Northeast Ontario were not made available by the Federal Government until redacted copies were provided in 2014—well after many St. Anne’s survivors already settled their IAP claims.

These documents related to OPP investigations conducted between 1992 and 1997 at St. Annes resulting in charges and convictions of several perpetrators as well as statements from hundreds of witnesses. This information was not part of the evidentiary record for 166 St. Annes survivors who settled their IAP claims before these documents were made known. This evidence could have resulted in a more favourable outcome had it been available at the time.

The Federal Government has been fighting (and continues to fight) St. Annes survivors from being able to reopen their IAP cases and has spent over 3 million dollars on legal fees thus far.

The Federal Government’s actions fly in the face of its 2008 Apology and is another slap in the face to survivors and their families.

Justice must not just be done, but must also be seen to be done.

It is my hope that Canada does the right thing, and muster up the political will to treat these survivors and their families with the respect they deserve.

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